We were teaching a workshop in southwest England when Ed asked the group: "If you like to suffer, then raise your hand." No one raised a hand. So why do we create suffering for both ourselves and others?
Seems like we love to suffer, as all the ways out of suffering are staring us in the face. If not, then why do more people drink alcohol than meditate, or why do more people eat fast food than get exercise? Smoking cigarettes is a major cause of death in the U.S., as is sugar consumption leading to obesity, so why do we love everything that is bad for us and keep away from things that do us good?
Presumably, it's because we really don't like ourselves too much and live in such a way that our own needs take second place. Or we believe we're invulnerable and will go on forever: "Things like that don't happen to me!" But once a cycle of self-denigration gets started, it takes a huge amount of determination and motive to make real changes. The mind is a perfect servant, as it will do whatever it's told, but it's a terrible master, as it fails to help us help ourselves.
This can be even harder when our mind is like a deranged monkey, leaping from one thought or drama to the next, never allowing us time to be quiet, peaceful and still. Meditation can make a huge difference to this, which may sound farfetched, but it's a direct way to cut through the chaotic monkey mind that's constantly making excuses and supporting our resistance. Yet so many people pay it so little attention. Drinking alcohol can kill and meditation can save, yet there are far more people who drink.
It is fascinating to note how the Buddha recognized suffering and its role in our lives all of 2,600 years ago. His basic teachings are the Four Nobel Truths: 1) life is suffering; 2) the reason for that suffering is because of our desire for things to be different to how they are; 3) the way to become free of suffering, which includes meditation; and 4) the ultimate state of freedom from suffering.
Here are seven ways meditation can transform your life:
1. Chills You Out
Stress is responsible for an estimated 70-90 percent of doctors visits, while quiet time is the most effective remedy for a busy and overworked mind. In a stressed state, it is easy to lose touch with inner peace, compassion and kindness. In a relaxed state, the mind clears and we connect with a deeper sense of purpose and altruism. Your breath is your best friend. Any time you feel stress rising, heart closing, mind going into overwhelm, just focus on your breathing and quietly repeat. Breathing in, I calm the body and mind; breathing out, I smile.
2. Releases Anger and Fear
Anger can lead to hatred and violence. If we don't accept our negative feelings, then we are likely to repress or disown them, and when denied they can cause shame, depression and rage. Meditation enables us to see how selfishness, aversion and ignorance create endless dramas and fears. It may not be a cure-all. It's not going to make all our difficulties go away or magically transform our weaknesses into strengths. But it does enable us to release self-centered and angry attitudes and generate a deeper inner happiness.
3. Generates Appreciation
A lack of appreciation easily leads to abuse and exploitation. So start by taking a moment just to appreciate the chair you are sitting on. Consider how the chair was made: the wood, cotton, wool, or other fibers, the trees and plants that were used, the earth that grew the trees, the sun and rain, the animals that maybe gave their lives, the people who prepared the materials, the factory where the chair was built, the designer and carpenter and seamstress, the shop that sold it. All this just so you could be sitting here, now. Then extend that appreciation to every part of yourself, then to everyone and everything in your life: For this I am grateful. And see how your attitude to your world changes.
4. Develops Kindness and Compassion
Every time you see or feel suffering, whether in yourself or in another, every time you make a mistake or say something stupid and are just about to put yourself down, every time you think of someone you are having a hard time with, every time you see someone struggling, upset or irritated, just stop and bring loving kindness and compassion to yourself. Breathing gently, silently repeat: May you be well, may you be happy, may you be filled with loving kindness.
There is a reservoir of basic goodness in all beings, but we often lose touch with this natural expression of caring and friendship. In meditation, we go from seeing our essentially selfish and ego-bound nature to recognizing that we are an integral part of a far greater whole, and as the heart opens we can bring compassion to our fallibility and humanness. Meditation is, therefore, the most compassionate gift we can give to ourselves.
5. Actives Harmlessness
Simply through the intent to cause less pain, we can bring greater dignity to our world, so that harm is replaced with harmlessness and disrespect with respect. Ignoring someone else's feelings or needs, thinking thoughts of revenge and dislike, affirming our hopelessness, or seeing ourselves as incompetent or unworthy are all causes of personal harm. How much resentment, guilt, or shame are we holding on to, thus perpetuating such harmfulness? Meditation enables us to transform this through recognizing our essential goodness as well as the preciousness of all life.
Without sharing and caring we live in an isolated, disconnected and lonely world. We can take meditation "off the cushion" and put it into action as we become more deeply aware of our connectedness with all beings. From being self-centered, we become other-centered, concerned about the welfare of all. Then, reaching out beyond ourselves becomes a spontaneous expression of genuine generosity seen in our capacity to let go of conflicts or forgive mistakes, or in our desire to help those in need. We are not alone here, we all walk the same earth and breathe the same air; the more we participate, the more we are connected and fulfilled.
7. Invites You to Be With What Is
The very nature of life includes change and unfulfilled desire and a longing for things to be different from how they are, all of which brings discontent and dissatisfaction. Almost everything we do is to achieve something: If we do this, then we will get that. If we do that, then this will happen. But in meditation, we do it just to do it. There is no ulterior purpose other than to be here, in the present moment, without trying to get anywhere or achieve anything. No judgment, no right or wrong, simply being aware.
Meditation enables us to see clearly, to witness our thoughts and behavior and reduce our self-involvement. Without such a practice of self-reflection, there is no way of putting a brake on the ego's demands. Stepping out of the conceptual mind, however, doesn't mean stepping into nowhere or nothing; it doesn't mean that there is no connection to a worldly reality. Rather, it is stepping into sanity and, more importantly, into even greater connectedness. Then we have no more need to do ourselves harm!
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